Afghanistan, the thriller that is all too real

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been opined so assuredly by so many who know so little. I'm talking about Canada's involvement in the Afghan war, of course.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been opined so assuredly by so many who know so little.

I’m talking about Canada’s involvement in the Afghan war, of course. And while I owe an apology to Churchill for that quote, it’s true nonetheless.

Ninety-nine per cent of the politicians and pundits who fill our TV screens with firmly held views on Afghanistan couldn’t tell a Tajik from a Pashtun if one invited them over for dinner and served them Qabili Palau.

So it was with great interest that I opened Chris Alexander’s The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Alexander knows what he is talking about. He was Canada’s first ambassador in Kabul from 2003-2005 and, from then until 2009, was one of the deputy special representatives of the United Nations mission there (he’s currently slumming it as a member of Parliament in Ottawa).

The two roles put Alexander at the centre of the tumultuous Afghan saga during many of its most critical chapters. Friends in Kabul report that, unlike conventionally desk-bound Canadian ambassadors, he got out of the office and had one of the deepest and most diverse networks in the country. This makes his book livelier than the typical diplomatic memoir. It is liberally sprinkled with quotes from village elders, Afghan poets and battle-hardened mujahedin, along with firsthand reports from some of the country’s most untraveled districts.

The book begins with a sketch of Afghanistan’s history. You can’t understand the current conflict without a sense for the country’s rich past, from its fabled days as a crossroad of nations two millennia ago to the Russian war in the 1980s and civil war in the 1990s. Alexander makes the point Afghanistan is not the barely civilized basket case it is often made out to be, but instead has a history that includes periods of stability; of being a “regular” country that can be rebuilt.

Then he takes us briskly through the three phases of the post-9/11 conflict: the “Bonn process” of 2001 to 2004 that saw a restored Afghan government put in place with international support; the resurgent fighting and fraying relationship between the Karzai government and its Western supporters from 2005 to 2007; and the Afghan and Western response to that crisis, including President Obama’s “surge.” It sounds like dreary going, but Alexander makes it read more like Rolling Stone than Henry Kissinger.

One of the failings of a diplomatic memoir is excessive discretion. Alexander avoids this, notably about Pakistan’s not-so-secret support for the Taliban. Dropping the official fiction that Pakistan is doing its best to support the international mission, he describes in detail the “Pakistani colonels and brigadiers … now back in the saddle, coaxing the coals of insurgency back into flame” with weapons, training, money and protection in Pakistani havens. He even describes the notorious attack on the Serena Hotel and how one of the suicide bombers was caught on security video phoning a number in Pakistan on his mobile for instructions.

If he had to cut anything from the book to protect either diplomatic confidences or his current position as a Canadian parliamentary secretary, it must have been spectacular indeed.

He also avoids the “inside the beltway” obsession of many ex-diplomats with political manoeuvring back home. Alexander spares us a blow-by-blow expose of Canadian decision making and torture scandals, probably disappointing many critics of the mission.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is not the military campaigns, diplomatic manoeuvring or even the spectacular cultural kaleidoscope that is Afghanistan. It is the stunning courage of the individual Afghans who risk their lives everyday to rebuild their country.

Hardly a chapter passes without a village elder being beheaded, a police chief blowing up or translators being seized by warlords. Even teaching in a school, rebuilding a road or organizing an election is an act of courage.

“There arguably has never been a more willing partner for American-led nation building than Afghanistan,” says Alexander. For every warlord or Taliban fighter, there seem to be 10 dedicated Afghans working thanklessly in ministries or reconstruction projects. He is an eloquent supporter of the mission.

But he doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges, pointing out that, “Wounds left by 30 years of war still are raw. Terrorism is a daily menace. Roads are often littered with Taliban bombs. Regional warlords, drug barons and corrupt government officials all flout the conceit of a functional and unified nation.”

It raises the question of how far we should go in intervening to rebuild shattered countries.

Why were we relatively successful in Bosnia, but never put boots on the ground in Darfur?

Rory Stewart, a British MP who spent years in Iraq and Kabul, likens the challenge to emergency rescues of mountain climbers. We should rescue when we can, he says, but “in interventions, as in a mountain rescue, the moral right and duty to protect lives does not require futile or destructive adventures.”

An Ekos poll released last year had just 28 per cent of Canadians in favour of supporting an extension of our Afghan mission past 2011. I am one of the minority, I suppose, still in favour of helping the Afghans rebuild and resist Taliban attackers. It is a worthy and generous goal, and I wonder sometimes why so many Canadians are instinctively against it. I know lots of generous, public-minded Canadians who think we should pull out unilaterally tomorrow.

Perhaps it is that too many Canadians think any initiative involving the United States must, by definition, be suspect; they see an oil pipeline or Haliburton behind every US aid worker. Many others have absorbed the view that any use of force by our army is wrong, even in a good cause. Others simply don’t believe the repeated claims by our leaders that what happens in far-away Afghanistan makes much difference for Canadians.

You may be inclined to disagree with me about whether Canada should keep supporting the Afghans. But before you make a final decision, you should read The Long Way Back. I doubt you’ll find a more readable, insightful take on the Afghan conflict.

And if you run into any politicians or pundits telling you what to think, you should ask them if they’ve read it too.

The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace, By Chris Alexander. HarperCollins; 281 pages; $32.99.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He served with Alexander in the Canadian foreign service in the 1990s.